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Could Russia label many of its citizens 'foreign agents'?

Roman Goncharenko | Elena Barysheva
November 22, 2020

Russia is looking to better protect itself from any suspected meddling from abroad. New proposed laws could target journalists, teachers and social media networks such as YouTube and Facebook.

Vladimir Putin speaking to the Duma in March 2020
Image: Reuters/Sputnik/Kremlin/A. Nikolsky

The general thrust of several draft laws put forward in Russia's State Duma in the past few days is that the country is facing threats from abroad and the state must act quickly to ward them off.

Most of the proposals aim to cut Russia off even more from the rest of the world. And, like similar legislation in past years, they would mean additional restrictions on civil society and opposition politicians.

Individuals also targeted

For years, people in Russia who are involved in politics and receive money from abroad have had to register as "foreign agents" with the relevant authorities. Every person or organization thus listed is obliged to send the authorities regular reports on their activities and expenditures.

The controversial designation "foreign agent" conjures up associations of espionage. So far, it has been applied particularly to NGOs and international media. But now this regulation could be expanded at the initiative of the committee in the upper house of Russia's parliament that is responsible for protecting state sovereignty from external intervention.

Office of the NGO Memorial with 'foreign agent' written in graffiti on the wall next to the entrance
This entrance to the Moscow headquarters of the human rights organization Memorial has 'foreign agent' in graffiti next to itImage: Getty Images/AFP/Kudryavtsev

All citizens and groups in Russia that are involved in political activities and receive financial support from abroad are to be obliged to call themselves "foreign agents," according to the draft law. This extends the scope of the current procedure to include a large number of individual people.

It would mean that they could be banned from working as public servants or having access to confidential documents. If they run in elections, such candidates would have to publicly identify themselves as "foreign agents."

Another new aspect is that foreign journalists who are accredited in Russia could also be included in this category. In addition, Russian media could be required to mention it when reporting on organizations that are affected.

Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International's Russia researcher, has spoken of a "new witch hunt of civil society groups and human rights defenders standing up for justice and dignity." Other human rights activists have also criticized the planned measure as yet another way of suppressing civil society.

Possible blocks on YouTube and Facebook

Other new proposed regulations target social platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Parliamentarians say they are aiming to combat "internet censorship." If content from Russian media is restricted by foreign platforms, Russia would be able to impose fines or fully or partially block the social media networks. Such sanctions would be decided by the Russian public prosecutor after consultation with the Foreign Ministry.

Smartphone showing mobile version of YouTube, with computer screen displaying YouTube logo
Could sites like YouTube really be blocked in Russia?Image: Imago Images/TASS

But it seems doubtful that a platform like YouTube could really be completely blocked in Russia, because the state would affect many of its own citizens by doing so, explained Valery Fadeyev, chairman of the presidential human rights council.

Nevertheless, Fadeyev agrees in principle with the proposed legislation and said that "serious debate" was needed on how to protect "Russian media and Russian users from censorship by American IT giants." Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov also said decisive action had to be taken to combat "discriminatory actions of foreign internet platforms against Russian customers."

More state control in education sector

Tighter restrictions are also envisaged for the education sector. More is to be done to fight "anti-Russian propaganda" in schools and among students, according to a statement. International cooperation by Russian educational institutions could be affected.

Another proposal envisages firing teachers if they engage in "agitation" — a term that is not clearly defined — or instigate "unconstitutional" activity. Human rights activist and journalist Nikolai Svanidze said in an interview with the Interfax news agency that this would create "even more scope for despotism" and denunciation.

Opposition protest in Moscow in July 2019
Opposition protests like this one in July 2019 could become harder to stageImage: DW/S. Dick

Eyes on election?

Finally, more restrictions are to be placed on freedom of assembly in Russia. Anyone wanting to organize demonstrations in Russia must not receive any funds from abroad, according to draft legislation. Individual protests, which have become an increasingly widespread method of expressing criticism, are to be subject to new regulations preventing several people from protesting one after the other.

The proposed measures have surprised observers such as the political scientist and DW columnist Ivan Preobrazhensky. "The Kremlin is in a hurry to push through these regulations," he said.

Perhaps Moscow is feeling pressured by the anti-government protests in Belarus. But the Duma election scheduled for fall 2021 could also be helping drive the new proposed legislation.

Russian NGO fights for survival

This article was adapted from German.